Irresponsible spending on nuclear weapons infrastructure

Hundreds of millions of tax dollars have been wasted on U.S. nuclear weapons infrastructure—again. The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) wasted about $600 million on the design of the Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

The waste was confirmed by Bruce Held, NNSA administrator. In an April 8 House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee hearing chaired by Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), Held said that half of the $1.2 billion spent on designing the UPF is “just gone.”

Responsible for maintaining the nuclear weapons arsenal and laboratories that support the arsenal, NNSA is a federal civilian contracting agency that oversees major construction contracts. A major contract is defined by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) as having a value over $750 million.

NNSA’s major contracts are on GAO’s “High Risk List,” susceptible to fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement. When it comes to big construction jobs, NNSA seems to have more money than sense. To their credit, NNSA has improved on managing projects less than $750 million; several smaller projects were completed on time and on budget. Unfortunately, the UPF is among the latest examples of NNSA’s failure to responsibly manage large contracts.

Half the money spent on designing the facility is gone with nothing to show for it. The start of UPF’s construction has been delayed by at least 10 years. According to Held, the facility may not be finished until 2038—“well after most people who are today working at Oak Ridge would be long retired.”

Each representative and senator on the Appropriations Energy and Water subcommittees should wonder how a federal agency with several major contracts could let one project slip so perilously out of control. When mismanagement leads to exorbitant waste and abuse of the taxpayer, it is time to take a closer look. Rep. Rogers was right: it is awful.

Nuclear weapons facilities have operated on an assumption that government objectives are better met by the skill and expertise of private industry. Facilities would be owned by the government, and industry would be contracted to operate the facilities. That relationship has worked in some other functions of the Energy Department, particularly the Office of Science, but the model seems to have failed the UPF project.

The management and operating contractor for the UPF was Babcock and Wilcox Technical Services Y-12 (B&W), which has since been replaced on the project. NNSA would oversee B&W as the private contractor carried out the majority of the work to design and build the UPF. B&W was free to achieve the NNSA’s performance goals as they saw fit, which is in line with the thinking that government defers to the expertise of industry.

In the process, B&W subcontracted UPF’s design to four other companies and then failed to consolidate or supervise the subcontractors’ work. This led to an untenable design which was scrapped and over half a billion tax dollars were paid to a handful of companies for nothing the government could use.

More rigorous performance standards for contractors have since been put in place. However, more can be done. A peer review process could be used at NNSA. Private engineers and managers from other contractors across the nuclear weapons complex could critique each other’s plans, under NNSA direction, before embarking on large construction projects. This would provide assessment of projects from companies that work for NNSA but are not working on the project being considered.

Additionally Congress could place the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in charge of supervising all major NNSA construction projects until NNSA has a better track record with the GAO. The Corps has helped other parts of the government with fledgling construction responsibilities and they could teach the NNSA a thing or two.

The Friends Committee on National Legislation opposes all nuclear weapons and the facilities that support their modernization. However, you don’t have to be a Quaker or pacifist to realize the millions our government throws down the drain on the UPF and other mismanaged projects at NNSA is poor public policy.

Demanding accountability from federal contractors, requiring independent performance evaluation from across the complex, and supplementing industry expertise with the Army Corps of Engineers protects taxpayers from waste and abuse and certifies the NNSA can be effective at overseeing large projects that it delegates to industry.

Tamerlani is the program assistant for Nuclear Disarmament at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.